In December 1991, after three decades of various filmmakers and actors expressing interest in the project, Hector Babenco's long-awaited thirty-two-million-dollar adaptation of At Play in the Fields of the Lord finally arrived in American theaters. Based on Peter Matthiessen's acclaimed novel, the epic was filmed on location in Amazonia, starred a variety of popular actors, and was just over three hours in length. Contrary to the general opinion that Hollywood rarely explores the lives of religious characters, At Play portrayed four evangelical Christians whose religious beliefs inspire them to travel to Amazonia in an effort to convert members of the Niaruna tribe. Despite the long-standing interest in Matthiessen's novel, critical reactions to the film were decidedly mixed, and its box-office response was disappointing. Still, some reviewers described the film as a cultural marker regarding its critical representations of evangelical Christian religious identity. (1)
If American films have been accused of failing to explore the complexities of religious devotion, they are not alone. (2) Few empirically based, audience-centered studies have treated religious identity as a salient category for understanding audiences' responses to popular culture texts. (3) Consequently, a focus on the complex functions that religious identity and ideology play in the interpretation of specific films addresses a substantive gap within theories of audience reception. This essay presents a qualitative, interpretive analysis of audio-taped conversations (both one-to-one and focus-group settings) involving six middle-class European-American evangelical Christians' reactions to At Play in the Fields of the Lord. The purpose of the analysis is to provide insight into some evangelical Christians' popular culture practices--and the effects of those practices--through analyzing their reactions to images of Christianity in contemporary film. I will explore in particular the participants' reactions to depictions of sexuality within the context of Christian characterizations, showing how their responses to specific scenes in the film suggest a moral "sensibility" that involves articulations between their interpretations of biblical passages and their beliefs that negative spiritual effects can accompany the act of looking at sexual images. (4) I focus on the participants' reactions to nudity and sexuality because their discussions of these themes repeatedly played a pivotal role in shaping their overall opinions of the film. I analyze their reactions not only in terms of their evangelical identities but also in relation to other social roles and gendered identities. And for at least some of the participants, I argue that their evangelical engagement constructs a hierarchy of viewing priorities that privileges the presence of sex and nudity over all other narrative structures and consequences. While the subject matter in this essay is voiced in response to one film, the participants' reactions reveal interpretive patterns that apply to a much wider range of movies and popular culture practices. (5)
What Is an "Evangelical Christian"?
"Evangelical Christianity" is a hotly contested descriptor. In fact, it is so contested that some have argued the category should be done away with, in light of its inability to describe the many distinctions that exist among those who define themselves...
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